Now, they’re all over t-shirts and lunchboxes, but back in 2008 when Marvel Studios were kicking off as their own self-producing entity, their characters weren’t all that well known. Captain America was probably the most familiar (along with the Hulk), but Iron Man and Thor and Nick Fury and co. were, while obviously known and loved by comic fans, pretty unrecognizable to general audiences, who knew more immediately iconic characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, far better. Now, the roster of The Avengers are all household names, but with Spidey, X-Men and the Fantastic Four still under the clutches of other studios, and contracts on the original actors running out, Marvel are being forced to turn to some of their more obscure properties. But few expected them to go as obscure as “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” a relatively little known space-comic, set millions of miles away from the Marvel characters already established, with a line-up that includes a green-skinned assassin, a talking raccoon and a tree, and delivered in a $200 million adaptation directed by Troma graduate James Gunn. And yet, the result might be the best Marvel movie yet.
In 1988, following the death of his mother, a young Peter Quill is abducted by a spaceship. Years later, he’s grown into the shape of Chris Pratt, and is a galactic outlaw trying to go by the name Star-Lord. He’s been working with the group of scavengers that found him in the first place, led by fearsome space-redneck Yondu (Michael Rooker), but has just betrayed them in the hope of taking the mysterious Orb he’s just stolen and collecting the bounty on it himself.
But his new find brings him into the orbit of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of fearsome galactic tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin), and bounty hunters Rocket (the raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (the tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). All four end up in jail, arrested by intergalactic police the Nova Corps (led by Glenn Close and John C. Reilly), where they also come into contact with Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a vengeance-fueled killer with his eyes on Gamora. But the quintet might, as unlikely as it seems, be the only thing that stands between the Orb and the genocidal fanatic Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace), who hopes to use it to wipe out entire planets.
If that sounds convoluted, that’s because it kind of is: there’s a lot to set up here, not least our five central characters, along with various others, like second-tier villains Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and the more mysterious Collector (Benicio Del Toro, with a baffling one-scene cameo). It doesn’t help that the plot has to twist uncomfortably in order to include Thanos, who has no reason to be here other than that he’ll eventually be fighting the Avengers. The result, combined with a positively breathless pace (two hours feels closer to 90 minutes), is that the plot isn’t the most crystal clear of these films.
And yet there’s something refreshing about it. As with the original “Star Wars” (the clearest influence here, and the film is one of a small handful in nearly forty years to come close to the vibe of “A New Hope” et al, as if the Mos Eisley Cantina was spread across a larger universe), you’re thrown in at the deep end, and given enough credit that you’ll pick up things as you go on. Gunn would rather you were confused for ten minutes than bored for one, and there’s so much crammed onto the screen that you never resent the movie for letting you play catch up, in part thanks to a screenplay credited to the director and Nicole Perlman that, Thanos asides aside, is well-structured and tight.
But mainly, you’re just happy to be hanging out with the Guardians. The secret of the success of “The Avengers” is that it assembled a group of heroes who you’d be just as happy to watch shooting the shit around a table as kicking villainous behind, and ‘Guardians’ replicates that. Former wrestler Dave Bautista proves to be canny casting as Drax. He’s furious and driven, but with a certain samurai-like nobility, and an unexpected light touch with comedy. The oft-underrated Zoe Saldana has a tougher job with Gamora, but nails both the physicality and the idea of a killer reaching a breaking point with her employer/adoptive father, and wanting to do the right thing for once. It’d be nice if the lone major female character was allowed to get in on the comedy, but still…
Much of the pre-release hype has centered around Rocket and Groot, and both should be fan-favorites for years to come (kids are going to eat the pair up). Groot’s a sort of gentle giant (Diesel’s casting indeed nods to his work on “The Iron Giant,” and he’s as effective here as there, even with only three words to utter), while Rocket’s a motormouth psycho, but one with an unexpected self-loathing, and a genuinely tender side. They’re terrific characters, and the VFX team have outdone themselves here, as they both feel like living and breathing creatures at every moment.
And a star is certainly born with Chris Pratt as Quill. Eyebrows were raised by many at the casting of the actor, best known as slightly tubby human Labrador Andy Dwyer on “Parks & Recreation,” but even given the other talented actors who were said to be up for the role at the time (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston), it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else pulling it off as well. Quill’s an intergalactic rogue, but he’s more Indiana Jones than Han Solo, a mix of competence and flying by the seat of his pants. He’s not just an action man either: Pratt brings a sense of the little boy a long way from home, and that’s one of the reasons that ‘Guardians’ feels like it has an atypically large heart for a Marvel picture.
Gunn’s careful to keep the focus on the central five, but certainly proves himself capable of the bigger canvas. The film really pops visually, with an admirably bright color palette (DP Ben Davis doing excellent work), and though there are occasionally some geography issues, the action is mostly satisfying, particularly a climactic set-piece that somehow avoids the CGI-overload that’s tainted other recent Marvel movies.
That’s not to say that some other familiar issues don’t rear their head. At this point, legislation needs to be passed to prevent the plot revolving around the chase for some MacGuffin-y superweapon or other, and to stop the movie ending with some giant flying ship crashing into a city. Worse, the principal bad guy is basically a washout once again. Pace has some presence as Ronan (who’s painted as a sort of religious maniac, drawing some obvious real-world parallels), but the character is only a little more interesting than the non-entity from “Thor: The Dark World,” again fitting with the Marvel trend of giving rather dull bad guys for the heroes to fight.
Still, none of these hamper the enjoyment too much. Indeed, one of the biggest pleasures is the way that the film feels, even more so than this spring’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a deviation from the Marvel formula, a gloriously, defiant weird movie that nevertheless proves to be an enormous crowd-pleaser. The final credits promise that “Guardians Of The Galaxy Will Return,” and for once, you’re actively looking forward to it. [B+]